BBC HomeExplore the BBC
This page has been archived and is no longer updated. Find out more about page archiving.



BBC Homepage
BBC Music
BBC Radio 3

Radio 3

Contact Us

An introduction to the solo piano music of
Debussy and Ravel
Artur Pizarro (credit: Sven Arnstein)
From "something different" to the "factual object"
(Épater les bourgeois!)

by Robert Andres
Had Monet not used the word "impression" in the title of his painting of a sunrise in 1872, the art critic Louis Leroy would have probably not come up with it by himself for the review of the exhibition in which the painting appeared, published in Charivari in Paris in 1874. Had Leroy not picked up on the suggestion and made of "impressionism" the label - initially pejorative - that was so despised by those who it purported to identify, Debussy would have had no reason to consider "imbeciles" all those who used it.

The indiscriminate and simplistic application of this term in music, starting with an 1887 review of Debussy's symphonic suite Printemps - in order to identify and pigeonhole all facets of the profound and substantive (from certain traditionalist viewpoints violent and senseless) change of aesthetic rationale at the turn of the 19 th and the 20 th centuries - has been clouding the minds of the general public ever since. However, in spite of Debussy's criticism of this catachresis, as well as of the application of the literary term "symbolism" to music, recent research has not dismissed the connection among them.

What Debussy was trying to write was "something different" that he would eventually describe as "colours and rhythmicised time". His fascination with musical colour was particularly stimulated by Baudelaire's ideas on the correspondence between the arts, and Paul Dukas, composer and Debussy's friend, also affirmed that the most powerful influence on Debussy was that of writers, particularly of Edgar Allan Poe. Moreover, although he himself had rarely spoken on the subject, Debussy's knowledge of painting aesthetics and practices is nowadays tacitly accepted, and his music is frequently understood and interpreted in painting terms. "Collect impressions ... that is something music can do better than painting: it can centralize variations of colour and light within a single picture - a truth generally ignored", wrote the composer. He was interested in Turner's seascapes and admired Whistler (the Nocturnes), whose writings influenced him. Criticising the influence of modern industrial civilization on art, Whistler wrote of the time when "the amateur was unknown and the dilettante undreamed of", while Debussy wrote of the pseudo-educated public whose capacity for music appreciation had been destroyed by schooling, calling such public "the idiots".

Born in 1862 into a family of shopkeepers, peasants and suburban employees, Debussy witnessed the construction of the Eiffel Tower (1889), the Paris metro (1900) and the French railway system, at the time when Paris was confirming its European capital of culture status. In two decades, between 1876 and 1896, the percentage of French journalists and writers living in Paris rose from 51 to 65 percent. Although smaller than London, its cultural life and artist concentration surpassed London's and influenced all other European and American capital cities, while the universal exhibitions of 1878, 1889 and 1900 received 16, 32 and 51 million visitors, respectively. Debussy initially had to participate in the "social game" of the more affluent circles, played by all aspiring artists who wanted to secure financial support and a chance to present their works in public. In that respect he followed the footsteps of musicians such as Chopin and Liszt, although, truth be said, his attitude in dealing with this kind of social pressure was much more akin to Chopin's: "Indeed, I no longer recognize myself, I'm to be found in the salons executing smiles. ... But really, you'd have to be a hopelessly weak character to be taken in by all this rubbish. It's so fatuous!" Debussy conformed to the expected up to the point necessary for him to win the coveted Prix de Rome in 1884, at his third attempt, but he considered the compulsory two-year stay in Rome an enforced exile.
From the very beginning, his individual approach towards music and life was noted by his teachers and his colleagues. His piano teacher Marmontel wrote: "Debussy isn't very fond of the piano, but he loves music." Although nothing came of his father's attempt to bill "Achille DeBussy" as "a little Mozart" at the age of thirteen(!), he was known for his caressing touch and sublime tone quality. The Italian composer Alfredo Casella remarked that Debussy "made the impression of playing directly on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism; the effect was a miracle of poetry". Debussy himself indicated that "one must forget that the piano has hammers". This approach was possibly the result of his early lessons with Madame Mauté de Fleurville, who claimed to have studied with Chopin. It may have been due to the fact that Chopin recommended studying without pedal that Debussy's understanding of the use of the pedal was far from the common image of Impressionist music being "bathed" in pedal: "The quiet truth is, perhaps, that the abuse of the pedal is only a means of hiding a lack of technique, and then, too, one must make a lot of noise so that no one can hear the music which one is butchering!" Indeed, Debussy's piano music calls for a piano technique achieving simultaneously contrasting sonorities and utilizing the whole potential of dynamics, articulation, tonal shading and pedalling that the instrument is capable of. This may have been the reason of Debussy's preference for the German pianos with their rich sound to the drier French ones (from 1904 he owned a Blüthner Aliquot small grand, and later he added a Bechstein and a Pleyel upright). Although his playing was obviously characterised by some undeniable qualities, most notably the orchestral richness of timbres, an 1879 Paris Conservatory report, after remarking on his "considerable gift for harmony" highlights his "desperately careless" attitude.

Perhaps this description was an indication of the process which Debussy referred to later as a search in music for "a freedom which it possesses perhaps to a greater degree than any other art, not being tied to a more or less exact reproduction of Nature but to the mysterious correspondences between Nature and Imagination". He always insisted that the beauty of a work of art must always remain mysterious and impossible to explain. This requirement might be associated with the hermetic quality and encoded messages of the Symbolists' lyrics, the understanding of which can only be attempted on an individual level. His experiences from his formative years and his sympathy towards the anarchist ideas associated with the Symbolist environment were probably at the root of the irreverence he was known for and the resulting sharp tongue, both present in the reviews he started writing when he was virtually unknown to the broader public and especially from 1901 when he found larger audience in La Revue blanche , a magazine mostly dedicated to Art Nouveau, where he signed his reviews as "Monseiur Croche, antidilettante". He also shared with his fellow symbolists the wish to "shock the burghers", declaring: "Truly, that day far in the future - I hope as far as possible - when I shall no longer stir up controversy, I shall reproach myself bitterly".

Emerging as a French musician at the time when Wagner's music was peaking in popularity in France, Debussy developed an ambivalent attitude towards the German, attending Bayreuth festivals in 1888 and 1889, but later criticising Wagner's compositional technique, dismissing the use of Leitmotif (an identifying musical motive) as a crutch for "those who are unable to follow a score" and, derivatively, calling the whole Ring cycle "a telephone directory of the Gods". Certainly Wagner must be identified as one of his earliest influences, but so were Chopin and Schumann and, over the years, Franck, Fauré and especially Massenet and the Russian "Mighty handful" (Mussorgsky, in particular). It is significant that Paul Dukas and, above all, Eric Satie, the bold experimenter, were his best friends, and that the list of his personal "enemies" was headed by Saint-Saëns, the neo-classicist.

Debussy's definition of music proposed that music was "not even the expression of feeling, it's the feeling itself". Consequently, its objective would be above art for art's sake and "textures and colours [would be] no more than illusory disguises". Just as in a painting reality is represented as a dynamic accumulation of a particular order of variations in light and colour, so has Debussy in music emancipated pitch, rhythm and harmony as independent elements, freeing them from tradition and rules. His music is characterised by ever-declining functional harmony (tonic-dominant based) and chromaticism. Its progress in time is described by theoreticians as "a mixture of motivic and harmonic components in a logically evolving context", reducing the need for a pre-established form and organic unity. Finding no use for romantic exaggeration and oversized form, Debussy introduced instead the concise and the economical as basic parameters.

Furthermore, Debussy was an admirer of the French baroque music (in particular of Couperin and Rameau and the "clarity, elegance, and simple and natural declamation" of their music), and a patriot, especially after the experience of the World War I in which, in spite of his wish, he was not able to participate ("I feel I am nothing but a mere atom crushed to pieces in this terrible cataclysm. . . I've got to the state of envying Satie who, as a corporal, is really going to defend Paris ", he wrote to his editor Durand). Considering the styles of Gluck, Wagner and Franck as detrimental to the development of genuine French music ("For many years now I have been saying the same thing: that we have been unfaithful to the musical tradition of our race for more than a century and a half . . . since Rameau we have had no purely French tradition..."), Debussy lamented the decline in taste in recent French music and loathed the administration of the arts. He also proclaimed: "French art needs to take revenge quite as seriously as the French army does!" He never saw either happen, dying from rectal cancer while Big Berthe was pounding Paris in March of 1918. His last three works though, amongst which the violin and piano sonata, were signed "Claude Debussy, musicien français". Seeking to pay homage to his illustrious compatriots he revived and employed pre-existent Baroque forms such as the suite and the ricercar. In order to evoke the archaic and often mysterious atmosphere, Debussy incorporated into his language the medieval modes that precede contemporary scales, and used alternative scales, such as pentatonic, whole-scale and oriental (Arabic). Oriental music, particularly as interpreted by Javanese gamelan orchestras, turned out to be a major attraction of the 1889 world exhibition in Paris, and fascinated Debussy, who found that "Javanese music obeys laws of counterpoint that make Palestrina seem like child's play." Another source of inspiration was the spirit of Spanish music and rhythms, which Debussy was able to emulate so well that Manuel de Falla himself pronounced one of Debussy's "Spanish" pieces (La Soirée dans Grenade) the best pianistic reflection of Spain, this distinction being even more remarkable considering Debussy had never really been to Spain (except for one trip to San Sebastian).

Piano was a central vehicle for Debussy's creative output: between 1903 and 1915 he had composed 45 pieces for piano, almost all of which were of programmatic character (describing a non-musical phenomenon, be it visual, aural, or olfactory). Moreover, many of his orchestral works were first conceived in piano arrangement. Many of his piano works were premiered between 1901 and 1913 by Ricardo Viñes, the Spanish pianist who was one of the central figures in Parisian music life at the time, and whom he met at Ravel's urging. However, from 1910, towards the end of his life, Debussy had to resume playing actively in order to accommodate his less than frugal living style. His repertoire included twenty-three of his own pieces, thirteen of which were preludes, as well as Children's Corner , 2 nd and 3 rd piece of the Estampes , and 1 st and 2 nd piece of the first book of Images .­­ He also recorded several piano rolls for Welte-Mignon Company, most likely in 1912.

The image of Debussy, person and musician, that emerges from the testimonies of his contemporaries is a very complex one. His whole life seems to have been dedicated to the pursuit of pleasures rather than passions ("And when all's said and done, Desire is what counts..."), and as a compulsive buyer he later in his life avoided going out to prevent himself from spending. As an Anglophile, he considered the afternoon tea and Scotch whisky important contributions to his lifestyle, and by the age of thirty-five he had had relationships with five blondes, several of them as extra-marital affairs. The famous Scottish soprano Mary Garden once remarked: "I honestly don't know if Debussy ever loved anybody really. He loved his music - and perhaps himself". Debussy defended himself against any expectations: "In real life, I cannot live up to the ideas I have in music. I feel the difference there is in me between Debussy the composer and Debussy the man". He also declared that he belonged to no school and left no disciples. Not everybody saw his contribution as positive - in 1918 Jean Cocteau wrote: "Debussy missed his way because he fell from the German frying pan into the Russian fire. Debussy played in French, but used the Russian pedal. One cannot get lost in a Debussy mist as one can in a Wagner fog, but it is not good for one". Some contemporary conservative reviewers saw it easier to define his music by what they saw as lacking, namely rhythm, melody, and emotion. On the other hand, he was staunchly defended by well-known musicians, such as the conductor Ernest Ansermet: "I find Debussy's work to be the most important musical phenomenon since Wagner and the Russians", and Igor Stravinsky, who met Debussy in 1910: "The musicians of my generation and I myself owe the most to Debussy".

Be it genuine or contrived, one of the central issues of the "Impressionist" music has always been the one of definition of the relationship between Debussy and Ravel, and of who owes what to whom. The common understanding of Ravel "having received the torch from Debussy" actually proves to be quite incorrect. In fact, although the two had initially cultivated a reasonably warm relationship, it started to suffer after Debussy published in 1903 his Estampes , in which the second piece, La soirée dans Grenade , bears a marked similarity with Ravel's Habanera from Sites auriculaires , for piano four-hands, the manuscript of which Ravel had lent to Debussy in 1898. Their first encounter probably took place at the first performance of Ravel's above-mentioned work and two years later Ravel was invited to Debussy's home for a private play-through of Debussy's opera Pelleas et Melisande . Following this occasion, Ravel and the group of his similar-minded fellow friends and artists, known as the "Apaches", attended virtually every public performance of the opera. The nickname for the group, whose members included the poets Tristan Klingsor and Léon-Paul Fargue, Abbé Léonce Petit, critic Emile Vuillermoz, and composers André Caplet, Maurice Delage, Manuel de Falla and Florent Schmitt, was coined by the pianist Ricardo Viñes, and as their "secret" recognition theme they used the opening of Borodin's Second Symphony.

In his lecture on the contemporary music, delivered at the Rice University in Texas in 1928, Ravel also remarked: "It has been claimed with some insistence that the earlier appearance of my Jeux d'eau possibly influenced Debussy in the writing of his Jardins sous la pluie , while a coincidence, even more striking, has been suggested in the case of my Habanera ; but comments of this sort I must leave to others". This was not just a case of highly polished manners that were characteristic of Ravel's public behaviour and befitted his image of a dandy (Ravel was among the first to wear pastel coloured shirts, for example). Ravel appreciated Debussy's music to the point of arranging the symphonic poem L'après-midi d'un faune for piano four-hands in 1910, indicating that he would like the piece played at his funeral "because it is the only score ever written that is absolutely perfect" and adding later: "It was upon hearing this work, so many years ago, that I first understood what real music was".

Coming from a self-professed perfectionist whom Stravinsky dubbed "the Swiss watchmaker", this comment speaks volumes. Indeed, although the posterity has shown appreciation for Ravel's immaculate writing (the American composer Elliott Carter commented: "Combined with an extraordinary sense of style and infallible ear was a refinement of taste and a unique inspiration that made very work he wrote right and final in its own category") contemporary comments often showed a different appreciation: "To hear a whole programme of Ravel's works is like watching some midget or pygmy doing clever, but very small, things within a limited scope. . . [with] the almost reptilian cold-bloodedness, which one suspects of having been consciously cultivated" ( The Times , April 1924).

It appears that Ravel was sincerely devoted to Debussy, while the latter always reserved a note of irony or sarcasm, but never unreserved admiration, as exemplified in the following comment: "...what annoys me is the attitude he [Ravel] adopts of being a 'conjuror', or rather a Fakir casting spells and making flowers burst out of chairs." This and similar comments suggest that Debussy might have developed a certain amount of jealousy towards Ravel, especially after Ravel had made moral judgement of Debussy's second marriage and supposedly contributed financially towards the expenses of Debussy's first wife after Debussy had abandoned her. Debussy may also have been annoyed by constant comparisons with Ravel, who Romain Rolland declared to be "more Debussyste than Debussy". While Debussy was emitting little drops of professional venom (calling Ravel's writing in Histoires naturells "factitious Americanism"), Ravel eventually tried to assert his independence by declaring himself "anti-Debussyste", oddly enough attributing to Debussy at the same time a "great creative influence in modern French music"! To add to the confusion, there are those who saw the two as a logical development, such as Frederic Delius who said that "without Debussy, Ravel would not exist", those who emphasize their similarities, such as André Suarès ("No one, except possibly Debussy, was further from being a barbarian"), and those who were able to discern a qualitative difference, such the pianist Jacques Février, Ravel's lifelong friend, who called Debussy "un poète voluptueux" and Ravel "un classique sensual". Ravel himself offered a helpful insight into the substance of their creativity when admitting that his orchestration was a technical exercise after composition, whereas Debussy's treatment of timbre was integral to the composition process. Nicholas Schalz (1987) regrets the long-standing tendency to see the two composers as "twin brothers" of Impressionism, and suggests that it is more productive to view them as complementary, inseparable acquaintances.

While Debussy was looking for "something different", something impalpable that was no more than a fleeting impression, Ravel was on the quest for l'objet juste , an objective representation transmitted without intimate involvement and often perceived by the listener as "cool" and "impersonal". In the course of this quest, Ravel's attitude underwent quite an evolution. In 1922 he opined: "The most important quality of a composer, in my view, is sincerity". Only five years later, in 1927, he said "I don't particularly care about this 'sincerity'. I try to make art." Some time later, he completed the about face by saying to the Swiss composer Frank Martin: "The greatest of all dangers for an artist is sincerity. Had we been sincere we should have written nothing but Wagnerian music". Perhaps the best qualification of this evolution comes from Ravel himself: "Doesn't it occur to these people that I can be 'artificial' by nature?"

One can find the traces of the "unnatural" polish and definitiveness sometimes felt in his pieces already in his student days. When he was twenty-three, a comment by a teacher already included a qualification "overly refined". He was consciously in search of emotional balance and perfection and declared: "If I ever did a perfect piece of work I would stop composing immediately". In spite of the probable sincerity of this remark, it may have been only a rhetorical flourish: just as Debussy, and also linked to the writings of Edgar Allan Poe (especially his Philosophy of Composition , translated into French by Baudelaire), Ravel was quite aware of the role of "mysterious" in creative process, be it inspiration or alchemy, which made his objective practically unattainable. Thus, he was safely able to go on composing, until his destiny proved the irony of his words: his last years were increasingly complicated by a progressive and extremely frustrating neurological disease which included ataxia and aphasia - apparently, as suggested by Hugo Valentine (1952), he was able to hear music in all its intricacy in his head, but it disappeared as soon as he took the pen to write it down (therefore only initial sketches exist of his next to last project, ballet Morgiane , based on the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and none of the opera Jeanne d'Arc ).

As for the "emotional detachment" often attributed to Ravel, he was quick to refute it: "That's wrong. I am Basque. Basques feel things violently but they say little about it and only to a few". Indeed, of Swiss (father, therefore Stravinsky's "watchmaker" comment) and Basque (mother) origin, Ravel insisted on declaring himself Basque. It is perplexing that, as long as 30 years after his death, unfounded allegations were still being made of his Jewish heritage. Ravel's attachment was more sentimental and acquired than factual, since the family had moved to Paris when he was four months old. In Paris he made friends with Ricardo Viñes in 1888, their mothers having a common link in Spanish language, and they entered together de Bériot's class in the Conservatory the next year. It is from Viñes' diary that we get a glimpse of the true intensity of Ravel's emotional responses, describing an 1896 visit to a concert of the Lamoureux Orchestra, where, upon hearing the Prelude to Tristan and Isolde , "seemingly so cool and cynical, Ravel, the super eccentric decadent, trembled convulsively and cried like a child".

Unlike Debussy, Ravel was turned down several times for Prix de Rome, and the last time, in 1905, this denial - apparently justified, as in his writing Ravel had blatantly disregarded the rules of the competition - had resulted in a scandal, because Ravel's name was already quite known at the time (he was already considered the prime successor to Debussy). His convictions had also made him refuse the Légion d'honneur title, and break away from the Société Nationale, dominated by the Schola Cantorum, which demonstrated a hostile attitude towards him. He then participated in setting up Société Musicale Indépendante, which was responsible for promoting young and more daring French composers, such as Satie, who had a concert in 1911 entirely dedicated to his works. Although after the World War I Satie regarded Ravel as outmoded, after Satie's death Ravel nevertheless declared him "the inspiration of countless progressive tendencies".

Ravel was equally quick to defend ferociously in press Stravinsky, after the premiere of Le Rossignol (1914), and in his even-handed attitude went on to praise composers such as Bloch, Sibelius, and Vaughan Williams ("A real artist, who only realised his richness when he learned to be English!"). His far-sightedness in supporting artists of true value was matched by his own musical instinct: he had written La Valse (working title Wien ) before his visit to Vienna and the Blues of the violin sonata before his U.S. tour. Among his contemporaries, he particularly appreciated Schönberg, while his historical taste preferred Bellini to Verdi, did not appreciate Brahms (he once called the theme of the Fourth Symphony "a terrible waltz") and considered Mozart the greatest of all.

He had a special consideration for Gershwin, who asked to have lessons with him but was refused with the justification that he "might lose that great melodic spontaneity". Ravel suggested that it is better to write "good Gershwin than bad Ravel". He did introduce Gershwin to that famous teacher of many an American composer, Nadia Boulanger, and wrote to her from New York in 1928: "There is a musician here endowed with the most brilliant, most enchanting, and perhaps the most profound talent: George Gershwin. His world-wide success no longer satisfies him for he is aiming higher. He knows that he lacks the technical means to achieve his goal. In teaching him those means, one might ruin his talent. Would you have the courage, which I wouldn't dare have, to undertake this awesome responsibility?" This statement demonstrates the evolution of his views on jazz: while in 1923 he was saying "Jazz from America is not wholly to be despised", in 1928 he was saying to Americans: "You Americans take jazz too lightly . . . Abroad we take jazz seriously. It is influencing our work".

His style was influenced first by Mozart (whose music André Gedalge, his composition teacher, used extensively in his lessons), baroque composers (Ravel transcribed a forlane by Couperin in preparation for Le tombeau de Couperin ), Liszt (whose brilliance and wide arpeggiated technique are in evidence in Jeux d'eau , Noctuelles and Un barque sur l'océan ), Chabrier (whose Trois valses romantiques may have given Ravel ideas for his Valses nobles et sentimentales ), and the Russian Five. He himself has indicated Fauré, Gedalge and Poe as the primary influences in his music, while Deborah Mawer identifies his main stylistic tendencies as objectification, crystallisation and detachment, corresponding to Symbolism, Cubism and Neoclassicism.

Regarding the harmonic language, Ravel's works show more functionality (sense of resolution) and presence of tonal centres. Roy Howat has pointed out the importance of the interval of the major seventh as a melodic and harmonic characteristic of Ravel's style, finding that it is notably present in many of his piano works: Sérénade grotesque (ending), Menuet antique , Jeux d'eau , Sonatine (ending), Noctuelles , Oiseaux tristes , Alborada del gracioso , Ondine,Scarbo , Menuet sur le nom d'Haydn , every one of the Valses nobles et sentimentales , five of six movements of Le Tombeau de Couperin , in total almost three quarters of his solo piano music.

The piano was a privileged instrument for Ravel, since almost all of the new trends in his style have appeared first in the piano music. For his music, Ravel preferred Erard pianos, since the company was still straight-stringing pianos even into the 20 th century, thus keeping the action light and facilitating repeated notes and glissandos. Unlike Viñes, Ravel viewed favourably recording technology, and signed a contract with Aeolian Company of London in 1920 to make ten recordings over two years. In the end, five recordings between 1922 and 1928 were autographed by Ravel, but of those at least Toccata and Le Gibet were actually recorded by Robert Cadadesus. The reason for this might be in the fact that Ravel had never considered himself a concert pianist and, in fact, although frequently solicited, played in public comparatively few of his own pieces. He was asked equally often to conduct his own works but, according to the contemporary reviews, had even less success than as a pianist. All in all, over 250 recordings of Ravel's music were issued up to 1939, making him probably the most recorded living "classical" composer before World War II. Ravel's travels had certainly contributed to the popularity and dissemination of his music: he toured Great Britain (1909, 1911, 1913), Austria (1920), visited Holland, Italy, Spain, Scandinavia, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and again Great Britain in the Twenties, and in 1928 endured a strenuous four-month tour of the United States. The first all-Ravel piano recital was given by a seventeen-year(!) old pianist by the name of Henriette Faure in Paris , on January 18, 1923 .

Among the less than flattering reviews his music has frequently elicited from his contemporaries, most notably from the partisan pen of Pierre Lalo, son of Edouard Lalo, the composer of Symphonie Espagnole , some show an exhilarating sense of humour: Reynaldo Hahn has described Ravel's composition technique as "transcendental jiu-jitsu" and Darius Milhaud considered La Valse a piece by "Saint-Saëns for the Russian ballet".
To add to the image of Ravel, one should mention his 160cm stature - which has made Beveridge Webster describe him as "a tiny man with an enormous head, a huge nose and an enormous intellect", Roland-Manuel as "a jockey", and Colette "a squirrel" - and the fact that, just like Debussy, he was a devoted gourmet. Unlike Debussy, though, he remained a bachelor, declaring: "Artists are not made for marriage. We are rarely normal, and our lives are even less so. . . You see, an artist must be very careful when he wishes to marry someone, because an artist never knows to what extent he may render his companion unhappy." He also remarked that "love never rises above the licentious", stating that music is his only mistress. Nevertheless, according to friend and conductor Manuel Rosenthal, he had asked once Hélène Jourdan-Morhange, violinist and close friend, to marry him and was refused.

Although at the age of twenty he was exempted from military service due to a hernia, at the onset of the World War I his patriotic feelings were stirred and this time, unlike Debussy, he was more successful: sparing no effort to become involved, after initially being assigned to care for wounded soldiers, in March 1915 he finally enlisted in the Thirteenth Artillery Regiment as a truck driver. In the aftermath of this experience, in 1924 Ravel evolved from his Basqueness and declared himself "above all a French composer". He went further, rejecting purity in art according to any race or nation, while fearing isolation from foreign music and welcoming the stylistic mixture of American music. Vehemently opposed to racism, in 1916 he refused to join the National League for the Defence of French Music, responding to their request: "I do not believe that 'in order to safeguard our national artistic inheritance' it would be necessary to 'forbid the public performance in France of contemporary German and Austrian works not yet in the public domain. ... Besides, I do not believe it necessary to have all French music, of whatever value, predominate in France and propagated abroad". In doing so, he echoed Baudelaire's 1861 essay on the occasion of the first performance in Paris of a Wagner opera (Tannhäuser) in which Baudelaire, like several of his colleagues, demonstrated fascination with German literary and music culture and rejection of national conservativism (prior to this, Flaubert had already made a bizarre claim that he was "actually German").

In light of the complexity of the era and of the relationship between the two composers, the chronological organisation of this integral presentation of piano works by Debussy and Ravel will be helpful in discerning their common roots and traits, mutual interaction and gradual but continuous differentiation and divergence of aesthetics and music language, reflecting the development of their personalities. However, answering the question of whether the outcome of this continuous evolutional process might be viewed as something of a crystallisation is something that can only be attempted in each listener's mind.
Indeed, maybe one should listen to both Debussy and Ravel and enjoy the mysteriousness and impalpability of true Beauty without questioning it.

Debussy/Ravel cycle
Related Links
on radio 3
on bbc.co.uk
on the web
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites.



About the BBC | Help | Terms of Use | Privacy & Cookies Policy